It's no secret that the braintrusts at behemoths like Google, Facebook and Tesla play a huge role in propelling us forward, but they definitely don't deserve all the credit. There are more than a handful of companies you've probably never heard of changing the world in ways you'd never even consider.
The 12 you're about to meet are doing some behind-the-scenes heavy lifting to keep us better informed, less wasteful, healthier, and in at least one case, slightly more corrupt. And for that, they deserve recognition.
1. DEKA Research
What It Does: Purifies contaminated water
Why It's Important: Half of all human illnesses come from water-borne pathogens
DEKA's founder Dean Kamen is best known for inventing the Segway, but he holds a whopping 440 other US and foreign patents for products—specifically medical devices—that do a whole lot more than shuttle overweight mall cops around. His passion project for the last 15 years has been the Slingshot, a device that converts unfit water (seawater, poisoned wells, river sludge, etc.) into pure safe drinking water without chemicals or filters. Even cooler? It runs on cow dung!
What It Does: Produces batteries that store enormous amounts of renewable energy
Why It's Important: Fossil fuels are finite, and destructive
Well before Tesla unveiled its Batterywall, Ambri was developing a hugely innovative battery that would make it affordable to store all that sweet, sweet energy produced by renewable sources, even when the sun's not shining and the wind's not blowing (which is a major hurdle in adopting such methods at a large scale). And if you have any doubts as to its significance, consider this: Bill Gates once cold-called Ambri's inventor to praise his work, and is now one of its major backers.
3. PK Clean
What It does: Turns plastic waste into fuel
Why It's Important: We're filling up landfills at an alarming rate
Despite the litany of recycling programs available, plastic remains very difficult to get rid of, and is a huge factor in overflowing landfills all around the world. PK Clean's special plants employ a process known as catalytic depolymerization, and when used at capacity can transform 20,000 pounds of plastic into 2,500 pounds of fuel, which can then be sold off to refineries.
4. Icon Aircraft
What It Does: Builds planes for the average Joe
Why It's Important: Non-pilots may soon be flying themselves to vacation destinations
While it's not quite a flying car, Icon's A5 light sport aircraft doesn't require much flight training, and is designed to be as easy to operate as a sportscar. Convenient, terrifying, or both?
What It Does: Provides DIY lab tests that require very minimal blood samples
Why It’s Important: Allows everyone to take charge of their own health
Going in for bloodwork sucks, but what if you could be diagnosed by simply pricking your finger at home? Theranos has developed a special—and closely-guarded—blood test technology that allows you to do just that, and get the results faster than you would if they'd been sent out to a lab. The company is very secretive regarding how the technology actually works, but considering it has raised money from the likes of Larry Ellison and is valued at $9 billion, there's reason to believe they're on to something.
What It Does: Keeps tabs on 70 million locations around the world
Why It's Important: Keeps crucial information at your fingertips
Ever wonder how companies like Yelp, Bing, Groupon, and every little service-oriented startup manage to keep tabs on all the phone numbers, addresses, and reviews buzzing around out in the Internet ether? Maybe not, but all that handy intel wouldn't be available so readily without the genius data-tracking expertise done by Factual, who make money by licensing the gobs of data.
What It Does: Produces small fuel cell power generators
Why It's Important: Clean, secure energy is crucial
Developed using technology with roots in NASA's Mars program, Bloom's generators use hydrocarbon fuel to produce clean, reliable and affordable on-site energy. It's telling that power-players like Apple, Yahoo, Google, NASA, and even the US Department of Defense rely on BloomEnergy to not only keep the lights on, but also protect their data centers from ever going down.
8. Artemis Networks
What It Does: Eliminates mobile data congestion
Why It's Important: Full speed mobile data service independent of cell towers
The innovative pCell technology behind Artemis eliminates our reliance on conventional cell towers so that your phone operates at full speed LTE—by functioning on its very own network—no matter how congested the area is with other users.
9. Skybox Imaging
What It does: Satellite imaging of the globe
Why It's Important: Lets companies access real-time imagery of any location on the globe
Using a series of tiny satellites, Skybox allows its clients to see updated high-resolution photos of any spot in the world 5-7 seven times per day. That sort of intel is hugely powerful when it comes to big agriculture, humanitarian crises, and even disasters (think Malaysia Airlines flight MH370). Skybox's future is looking pretty bright too, since Google recently doled out some serious money to acquire it.
10. Rebellion Photonics
What It Does: Helps cut pollution contributing to climate change
Why It's Important: Global warming really sucks
As part of the emerging methane mitigation industry, RP is pioneering techniques to prevent the accidental leakage of methane that occurs during the extraction, storage, and distribution of natural gas, a not-insignificant issue that threatens the climate.
What It Does: Shadow political intelligence for corporations
Why It’s Important: Will hugely change the lobbying industry
Lobbyists have long been leveraging their Washington connections to help out corporate clients, but Jellyfish is taking the backdoor political influence machine to new and shady levels. Jellyfish traffics in up-to-the-minute intel on things like the direction forthcoming government regulations may be moving in or how overseas operations may be affecting shipping routes. Its confidential corporate clients stand to make big money by being the first to know how such details may potentially affect their specific markets.
What It Does: Collects hordes of US consumer data
Why It’s Important: Makes it easier for companies to profile customers
You may consider the rampant collection of data about your consumer habits to be a bad thing, but being able to finely target a prospective audience is a hugely powerful tool for businesses. And while some privacy concerns are warranted, who knows how their unique methods of data collection may help thwart potential threats of terror and otherwise.
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercompressor and more than a little wary of non-pilots at the helm of any aircraft.